South Carolina becomes key state for 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Despite temperatures hovering around zero degrees, presidential hopefuls continue inundating Iowa and New Hampshire with campaign stops at universities, breweries and voters’ homes.

But a growing number – including Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris  – are starting to find refuge from the bitter cold in the South.

While candidates stumping for president spend considerable time in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters first get a say on who will be president, a growing number of 2020 Democratic candidates are heading south, to the Deep South.

South Carolina has become a key early-state primary for Democrats because it’s the first nominating contest with a large African American population (compared with Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada). And with the party’s push to become more diverse, the “First in the South” state is playing an outsized role in the 2020 presidential race.

“Make no doubt about it, the road to the White House starts in South Carolina,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin shouted during the state's 19th annual King Day at the Dome.

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On Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker marched with hundreds of Carolinians to the State House to celebrate Martin Luther King’s Day – a tradition started over a movement to remove the Confederate flag from the capital city's grounds.

“The call to our country is still loud, and the question is, are we dissatisfied?” Booker, who is expected to announce his candidacy, asked the crowd.

During a campaign stop at Columbia College Wednesday, Warren reacted to a mass shooting in Sebring, Fla., where a man opened fire inside a bank. “The time when the National Rifle Association holds our Congress hostage must end,” she said.

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Harris, who threw her hat into the ring on Monday, will attend sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Pink Ice Gala Friday evening in Columbia; she joined AKA as an undergrad at Howard University.

Political analyst Charles Bierbauer said the South Carolina primary “matters tremendously."

“It’s not Iowa, it’s not New Hampshire,” Bierbauer told Fox News. “About a quarter of the population is African American, and that’s the cornerstone of the Democratic electorate.”

To be more exact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27.3 percent of South Carolina’s population is black or African American.

The timing of the state’s primary is what has given it political significance.

The Palmetto State’s primary, which is fourth, is when the frontrunners are made clear, according to Bierbauer. He pointed to 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama separated himself from Hillary Clinton by capturing 55.4 percent of the vote, while Clinton only scored 26.5 percent.

“That’s where most of the candidates that go on to get the nomination start to move ahead in the field,” Bierbauer added.

This is just the beginning for South Carolina, Bierbauer said, suggesting accelerated visits from Democrats as the year progresses. State GOP Chairman agreed, before bursting into laughter.

Sen. Cory Booker leads the march to South Carolina's State House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Sen. Cory Booker leads the march to South Carolina's State House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Fox News)

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“The circus is coming to town, and the clown car is filling up fast,” Drew McKissick said, referring to the growing field of presidential hopefuls. He said once the primary is over, Democrats won’t step foot in the state because it’s traditionally a slam-dunk for Republicans. So in the meantime, he said he is welcoming the blue wave.

“Having so many of these liberal, extreme, socialist Democrats parade around South Carolina for a solid year,” McKissick said, “is just going to make our job…that much easier [come November].”